The House of Mondavi book review

The House of Mondavi: the Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty, Julia Flynn Siler. Gotham Books 2007.
mondavi-book-cover.jpgHaving finished reading the unauthorized Gallo and now the Mondavi family biographies, and having earlier read the Napa book by Conaway, I pronounce myself a novice historian on the Valley and the California wine industry. I am glad I read the about the Gallos before the Mondavis. Both families were instrumental in creating the modern California wine industry. The Gallos turned jug wines into oceans of cash and the Mondavis turned Napa into a first world, first class island of luxury where you lived the highest of high living. Where the Galllo brothers made money for themselves and would have happily excluded everyone else – including their youngest brother – the Mondavis spread the green far and wide…until they fell of the cliffs of extravagance and hubris.
This book is really about Napa’s and America’s greatest wine ambassador and tireless marketing genius (click for classic Mondavi wine commercial) Robert Mondavi robertmondavi.jpg and how he single-handedly lifted the Napa Valley and Napa wines from a curious American region to an international destination every bit the equal of the greatest regions in France, Italy and the world. His brother Peter (and Peter’s family), with whom he battled and inflicted great financial pain as a result of Robert’s departure from the CK Mondavi company and estate, gets about 20% of the attention.
OpusOnezoom2.gifMake no mistake about it. Robert lived large while Peter lived very small. Robert’s accomplishments are legion. He started the Napa Wine Auction, one of the premier international auction events. He partnered with Mouton Rothschild to create Napa’s first premium wine (Opus One). He built the Robert Mondavi Winery on Highway 29 setting off an era of viticultural and financial growth in the Valley that will never be equaled. Wine and jazz under the stars all summer long? Robert Mondavi’s idea. Culinary festivals? Yep. He created and embodied the image of California winemaker lifestyle for whom there was only joy, love and the best of everything. Robert actually learned how to live this large from his initial international label partner the Barone Philipe de Rothschild. The Opus One label required more than a year, many trips to Bordeaux, and hundreds of thousands of bucks to get it right. Can you tell which profile is Mondavi? Ask yourself who was the bigger wine dog in the 1990s?
He lost the winery and perhaps his sense of purpose at the end of his life. Even then his timing was perfect. What better time to lose those things than at life’s end.
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Peter has survived his brother and now his sons are in command at Charles Krug, the original Mondavi family Napa home. Showing intelligence they have embraced Uncle Bobby’s vision of Napa cabernet above all else with only the best oak barrels and most selective vineyard methods. If you like irony then consider that Robert left Krug because his brother resisted high quality wine methods (and costs) that Bob pioneered and are now the hallmark of Krug wines.
Robert’s sons, Michael and Timothy were ousted in the corporate coup that moved the winery they were supposed to inherit and operate into the Constellation Brands portfolio. Each has remained in the business in one way or another, however, it is somewhat like being the Duke of Albania. They made so much money in the Robert Mondavi Winery sale they do not need to work nor does any of their kids. So it is all about pride.
The book echoes themes found in more than a few California wine families where feuding is a very popular sport. There must be a book on the Sebastiani blood feuds. Important observation, if you want your kid to marry into a California wine family then you must send the child to Santa Clara University. It is the campus of choice for so many vintner scions.
In the wine industry, wine is not wine. Depends on your goals. You can make fine wine and live in Napa like a prince or you can make rot gut and live anywhere you want like a god. The Gallos built their empire on Thunderbird and Night Train, serving the so-called “ghetto market”. The Mondavi family made fine Napa wine. robmargrit2.jpgWithin a few decades each had moved in the other’s direction; the Gallos into fine wine and the Mondavis into supermarket wine (Woodbridge).
The Mondavis were more hip than the Gallos, reinforcing a Central Valley farmer vs. Napa gentleman bias. Robert loved to party, and travel first class. He was not shy about trying anything to keep the peace (for the pot he stirred) or build harmony. He had a full-time head shrinker on staff who had open access to everyone and anyone in the family and on the management team. The Dr. held private one-on-one sessions, groups, family, and worked board meetings, as well. Robert also chased ladies prolifically. He dumped his wife for the blonde winery hostess, Margrit. The book has a scandalous photo of Robert smooching the woman who designed the Opus One label in case one doubts. He was a peerless control freak and a consummate boor who aggravated his family and drove investors to maneuver him out. He was also a dreamer who never stopped dreaming and scheming and taking the Napa Valley and the Robert Mondavi label higher and higher in the wine world.
All words read and all things said, I enjoyed this book and learning about the Mondavi family history. Reading the detailed reporting on exactly how Constellation Brands took control is a primer in corporate warfare. However, I have to say for pure malevolence and general creepiness E&J rule!!
In the end, the tortoise won the race. Peter Mondavi’s winery is owned and operated by sons as he wished. P%26RMondavi1.jpgCharles Krug wines have returned to a position of respect winning positive reviews from writers and trade mags. Robert and his brother made friends again near the end of Robert’s life. Look for something similar about 30 years from now with the kids. There is at least one interview with Peter, Jr. that is worth reading after completing the Stiler book. He puts out the family line simply and without the whining spin of a Gallo press release. I guess the Napa folks really are different.

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